How Romania is using satellites to stop loggers leveling its forests

Every day on Romania’s highways, “ghost trucks” slip by unnoticed.

Digital records show the vehicles, loaded with timber, coming from verified logging sites in the Romanian forest. But the GPS data associated with the records reveal they actually have much more random origins: from cornfields, to cemeteries, to California.

It’s part of an illegal logging industry the government has said removes an estimated 141 million cubic feet of timber each year for the country’s old growth forests, some of the last in Europe. But a new, high-tech solution from Romania’s Ministry of the Environment is designed to counteract illegal logging by putting as much information as possible in the hands of the public using satellite imagery and GPS tracking. The hope is that, when all of the data is public, there will be nowhere for those shirking the law to hide.

“Around the world, we see countries that have similar problems with illegal logging, and they have great laws on the books,” said David Gehl, the Eurasia Program Coordination for the Environmental Investigation Agency, which has investigated Romania’s illegal logging industry in the past. “The problem is the lack of enforcement. What happens is there’s not enough funding given to the agencies to enforce these laws.”

The new system, launched Friday, is called Inspectorul Padurii, which means “Forest Inspector.” It works by combining images from three different satellites, taken at least once every five days, according to Micu Bogdan, a ministry advisor who helped develop the system. The software scans these images for changes in the forest that indicate logging has taken place (i.e. trees that were there in yesterday’s photo are missing today), then automatically highlights those areas. The map is then overlaid with information from the government’s digital database: who has permits to cut what and where, what the truck’s license plate number is, and when the logging took place. All of this information is combined to make it easy for anyone to spot illegal logging.

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